A terrifically honest post from Frances Coppola about the difficulties she has faced as an independent researcher. As I embark in a roughly similar direction, I’m worried this is what the future has in store for me, particularly when working within an organisational culture that is disturbingly ill-attuned to the idea of paying people for their work:
I have been looking through my diary for the next couple of months. It is pretty crowded. Meetings, lectures, conferences, TV and radio appearances…..it is almost 7 days a week. It’s nice to be busy, isn’t it?
But as I look at this ridiculous schedule, I wonder why, if I am so busy, I am so broke. When I say “broke”, I mean that I do not currently have enough money to pay my mortgage this month. I am hoping that those who owe me money for work I have already done (some of it dating back to January) will pay me in time. If they do not, I will once again be scrabbling around trying to borrow the money to pay my bills. I’m so tired of having to chase people to pay the money they owe me….
Looking further ahead, I only have enough paid work to cover my obligations for the next month or two. The summer is coming, and everyone goes on holiday then. Freelance writing – and teaching – dry up. So it looks very much as if I will once again be staring bankruptcy in the face by the end of August. I should be used to this by now, I suppose. It has happened every August for well over a decade, with the exception of 2014.
Para-academics mimic academic practices so they are liberated from the confines of the university. Our work, and our lives, reflect how the idea of a university as a place for knowledge production, discussion and learning, has become distorted by neo-liberal market forces. We create alternative, genuinely open access, learning-thinking-making-acting spaces on the internet, in publications, in exhibitions, discussion groups or other mediums that seem appropriate to the situation. We don’t sit back and worry about our career developments paths.We write for the love of it, we think because we have to, we do it because we care. […] We do this without prior legitimisation from any one institution. Para-academics do not need to churn out endless ‘outputs’ because of the pressures of a heavily assessed research environment. We work towards making ideas because learning, sharing, thinking and creating matter beyond easily quantifiable ‘products’. And we know that this is possible, that we are possible, without the constraints of an increasingly hierarchical academy. – The Para-Academic Handbook
I’ve just read back over our submission to this and I realised that the main thing I was trying to say can be summed up as two responses by para-academics to the question of how their digital scholarship is recognised:
Incorporating digital scholarship into the evaluative procedures within the audit culture and leverage ‘digital products’ for instrumental advancement within a institutional environment which is likely to become increasingly amenable to their recognition.
Resist the auditing of digital scholarship and seek to find spaces within the contemporary academy to move what have, up until now, been purely ‘online’ practices into ‘offline’ spaces. Eventually seeking to overcome the dichotomy all together.
Clearly this is an overdrawn dichotomy but I’d argue there are, fundamentally, two potential direction of travels: incorporating into existing structures or expanding out in an attempt to change (or at least resist) those structures. Is institutional recognition of digital scholarship worthwhile if it distorts the practices (which at their best are paradigmatic of communication for its own intrinsic value rather than extrinsic institutional rewards) which render digital scholarship attractive in the first place? Now to try and work out what (2) means in practice – the case made to this end in the chapter is pretty meagre.
Some thoughts for the Sociologists Outside of Academia panel discussion I’m taking part in on Wednesday at 4:30 at #BritSoc13
I felt slightly nervous about this panel prior to it because of the change that I’d undergone inbetween originally being invited and the actual BSA conference itself. I’d previously been hugely enthusiastic about the idea of ‘Sociologists Outside of Academia’ but now I’m more cautious, albeit not hostile to it at all. Around 6 months ago, having pondered the idea for ages, I went to work full time in a social media role (at the LSE so I didn’t get particularly far ‘outside’ of academia but the move into a non-research role was subjectively very meaningful).
I’m in the 5th year of an unfunded part-time PhD, I’ve freelanced and worked lots of part time contracts in a wide variety of roles over the course of my thesis. For much of this time, the workload outside my PhD has added up to something much more than the 36 hours a week I was contracted to work at the LSE. So I didn’t think working full time while continuing to do research would be any more difficult than this. But it REALLY was and I’m still trying to understand why that is – in the freelancer / part-time researcher lifestyle I’ve had for the past four years, I’ve enjoyed having an awful lot of space to think and develop projects on my own terms.
I’d seen the prospect of being a ‘Sociologist Inside Academia’, with the social structures it unavoidably involves subjugation to, as threatening that space. But in the last six months that space largely vanished, retreating to little more than my morning commute on the train and some time at the weekends. Which leaves me confused about a notion which I had previously been so enthusiastic about. It’s left me thinking about what is it to be a ‘sociologist outside of academia’? Is it to continue to identify as such? To continue to engage with sociological literature? To continue to engage with other sociologists? To continue to do research?
It was the last one that was key for me. My enthusiasm for the concept of abandoning a traditional PhD route, supporting myself through other means so that I could do the research I wanted to do freed from audit culture and the instrumentalism it fuels, was predicated on being able to continue to do research. Though I do realise when saying this that the kind of research I do (social theory & theoretically motivated small scale qualitative research) makes this possible in a way it might not be for others.
At present I feel like an idea that came very naturally to me, to have one foot in and one foot outside of the academy, probably isn’t possible in the way that I hoped it would be. But I’m not certain by any means. Not least of all because there’s a lack of any serious discussion of alternative academic career paths in UK sociology, something which is much less true in the US – perhaps because some of the pernicious trends in the academy which lead people out of necessity or chocie to pursue alternative academic career paths are much more developed there.
But I think these broader trends aren’t going to go away and there’s a need to seriously address them in practical terms. The ranks of the ‘para academics’ (those precariously employed but still actively working within academia) and the ‘alternative academics’ (those with graduate level training seeking alternative career paths outside the grouping we call ‘academics’) are only going to grow. At a time when Sociology is under great threat in the UK, it seems blindingly obvious to me that taking practical steps to incorporate people with sociological training and/or doing sociological work outside the academy is integral to preserving the discipline.
So things like making conferences more financially accessible, running lectures and engagement events which are accessible to those outside the academy (in all senses of the term ‘accessible’) and using social media to start to move sociological debates more into the open, as well as creating resources and multimedia publications which make sociological knowledge more accessible to those outside the academy. I think there’s been a pervasive failure to value the communication of sociological knowledge (at least outside of a classroom context) which really doesn’t help in this respect.
There’s also a need to offer much more multi-faceted career advice and skills training for PhD students. This is something the BSA’s PG forum, which I helped organise for a couple of years, has tried to do. But it’s still sadly absent at a more localised level and I think this contributes to a lack of understanding of the transferable skills gained during a PhD (particularly the value that being able to digest, understand and communicate academic research has for other roles both in and outside the university) and little sense of the options available
There is a name for those under- and precariously employed, but actively working, academics in today’s society: the para-academic.
Para-academics mimic academic practices so they are liberated from the confines of the university. Our work, and our lives, reflect how the idea of a university as a place for knowledge production, discussion and learning, has become distorted by neo-liberal market forces. We create alternative, genuinely open access, learning-thinking-making-acting spaces on the internet, in publications, in exhibitions, discussion groups or other mediums that seem appropriate to the situation. We don’t sit back and worry about our career developments paths. We write for the love of it, we think because we have to, we do it because we care.
We take the prefix para- to illustrate how we work alongside, beside, next to, and rub up against, the all too proper location of the Academy, making the work of higher education a little more irregular, a little more perverse, a little more improper. Our work takes up the potential of the multiple and contradictory resonances of para- as decisive location for change, within the university as much as beyond it.
Specialists in all manner of things, from the humanities to the social and biological sciences, the para-academic works alongside the traditional university, sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice, usually a mixture of both. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities to research, create learning experiences or make a basic living within the university on our own terms, para-academics don’t seek out alternative careers in the face of an evaporated future, we just continue to do what we’ve always done: write, research, learn, think, and facilitate that process for others.
We do this without prior legitimisation from any one institution. Para-academics do not need to churn out endless outputs because of the pressures of a heavily assessed research environment. We work towards making ideas because learning, sharing, thinking and creating matter beyond easily quantifiable products. And we know that this is possible, that we are possible, without the constraints of an increasingly hierarchical academy.
As the para-academic community grows there is a real need to build supportive networks, share knowledge, ideas and strategies that can allow these types of interventions to become sustainable and flourish. There is a very real need to create spaces of solace, action and creativity.
The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for making-learning-creating-acting, edited by Alex Wardrop and Deborah Withers, calls for articles (between 1,000-6,000 words), cartoons, photographs, illustrations, inspirations and other forms of text/graphic communication exploring para-academic practice, and its place within active intellectual cultures of the early 21st century.